Unorthodox: Book Review

I read Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. It is unorthodox. It is a rejection. But I did not find it scandalous. Not at all.

Guest Post by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

There is so much about this book that needs to be discussed. Let’s get a bit of insignificant criticism out of the way. For starters, I found the writing decent. Not excellent. It got better as the book progressed, but the early chapters were tedious in my opinion. The writing is over-descriptive to a fault. Too many sentences have too many adjectives and adverbs. The book doesn’t allow the reader any imagination. There’s no room for the reader to breath. It’s sensory overload. It’s almost like the author is trying too hard to prove herself as a good writer. Personally, I found it quite annoying.

The story is unremarkable. Shorter version of the book: Girl raised by her grandparents because her mother is a lesbian who left the community and her father is mentally ill has high anxiety and feels constrained by the limiting lifestyle of her community eventually leaves the community. It’s not a story we haven’t heard before nor is it a story we will not hear again.

The truth is that anyone with high anxiety will not have an easy time in any tight-knit, insular community. It’s not really that chasidic Judaism didn’t work for Deborah. It’s that her difficult childhood and personality didn’t work well in the high pressure society of chasidic Judaism. She probably would have been fine in a more moderate form of orthodox Judaism. Unfortunately for her, she was born into extreme circumstances.

Honestly, there was nothing “scandalous” in the book. (I will address the one scandal that has been manufactured at the end of this post). In other words, the book, fairly accurately describes the life of a chasidic girl in Williamsburg. It is insular. Education is placed at a minimum. Marriage is the goal of childhood, motherhood is the goal of adulthood. This is no scandalous. This is fact.

There are in fact, renegade renegade mikva attendants. There are libido charged teenage boys who are inappropriate toward girls (and other boys). There are stories of talking fish. People did burn their wigs. Secular books are frowned upon. Superstitions are rampant. People gossip. Especially about young married couples. There is abuse and it is covered up. There is prejudice against members of other chasidic sects and certainly against non-chasidic Jews, especially modern orthodox Jews and Sephardic Jews. Strange tales like eating pig will make you vomit are told. These are just the expected social conventions of the insular chasidic community. Nothing to see here.

But are these items an indictment of the entire chasidic community? Certainly not. Bad people and dumb ideas exist everywhere. The biggest gripe I have is simply the imaginary principle that there are no bad people or dumb ideas in the community. There are and knowing there are goes a long way to fixing those people and ideas.

The book brought me to tears twice. For a sap like me, that is not a good showing. Hush made me cry a ton of times. Even Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels moved me to tears a bunch of times. Unorthodox was not an emotional book. The only moments for me were the birth of her child and the when she and her son come to grips with the fact that the unhappy, broken, marriage is over. That’s it. The rest felt a bit detached and unremarkable.

But I like to find social commentary and universal lessons in this kind of book and I think there are some important issues the book raises.

Deborah’s personality is to question and to learn. In her community this is a dangerous trait. Her first step off the path was learning Talmud. That’s an innocent curiosity in most orthodox communities, even for a girl. But Deborah had to hide it. She couldn’t ask questions about what she had learned. With this her rebellion began.

Although Deborah relates to her grandmother as a rebel. I don’t think she realized how special her grandfather was. At least, what is recorded in the book paints Zaidy as a good guy. He avoids the Satmar politics. He is willing to read a newspaper after 9/11. He doesn’t believe in superstition and stories like the talking fish in New Square. He is also a bit of a rebel. In my eyes, Zaidy is a reasonable guy throughout most of the book. What’s unfortunate is one negative portrayal made its way onto the book jacket. But other than that incident, he seems to be a good guy. I think that his independence of allegiance and thought are worthy of praise and if more of his neighbors were like him, I think many issues in the insular community would be mitigated.

Her shortlived marriage leaves many unanswered questions. I would have liked more details. She says they fight. About what? The book doesn’t elaborate. She talks about their neighbors in Airmont. I am from Monsey, I know those people. I would have liked more about that period of her life. The life of what has become known as a “Tuna Beigel”. They dress somewhat chasidic but are much more liberated. Why didn’t that lifestyle work for Deborah? These are areas of the book that feel rushed and unfinished.

My favorite part of the book was the twist of fate that began with a visit to a Kabbalist. He told Deborah that her number was “nine”. On 9/9/9 just after midnight, Deborah had a life-changing motor vehicle accident. She says that the Kabbalist was right. Her number was nine. Somehow, I don’t think that is what the Kabbalist had in mind. But it’s poetic justice that his words were used by Deborah to rationalize her departure from the community.

The overall “lesson” of the book, if there is one, is that her whole life, as a good Chasidic girl, Deborah was taught to trust her intellect over her impulse. She was supposed to use her knowledge of Jewish law and thought to guide her and not allow her emotions and passions. Her freedom came when she put her impulse ahead of her intellect. Judaism is really all about placing one’s intellect above their impulse. Everyone from Maimonides to Luzzato talks about this. The trick is to channel one’s impulse into positive, creative, useful activity. One is not required to suppress everything about one’s self. Rather, one is supposed to use the intellect to guide one’s passions and creativity. The goal is to use one’s personality to improve the world.

More balanced, moderate forms of orthodox Judaism provide a better framework for avoiding this damaging problem. Most careers and opportunities are available to orthodox Jews. There are a few exceptions. Perhaps it would be useful for the more moderate versions of orthodox Judaism to focus on this aspect of Judaism. Even better, if the more insular versions of orthodox Judaism like the chasidic sects mentioned in Unorthodox or the new insular communities in the non-chasidic world would allow these doors to be opened for their communities.

There is somewhat of a happy ending to the book, even for religious, orthodox Jews. Feldman says that she is still proud to be a Jew. In a different sense than before, but still, she is not a “self hating Jew” as some have claimed. This is a positive development in light of her difficulties with her community,

To close, allow me to address what has become the biggest controversy over this book: The murder cover-up.

Feldman tells the story of her brother-in-law calling their home and telling them that a heinous murder had just occurred in Kiryas Joel. He was personally there as a Hatzalah member and he claimed that there was a cover-up of the murder.

In the book, the story is told as a rumor. The book makes no claim as to whether or not there was a murder. The only claim being made is that this is what she was told. The point of the story is to illustrate that no one would have a hard time believing that a murder was covered up. As a reader, I am deeply troubled that a rumor like this is even possible. But I did not ever think that Feldman was reporting on something with facts to back it up. This was a record of a conversation that she recalled. The issues that remain are not whether or not there was a murder. It is a much more basic issue. Whether or not a murder could or would be covered up. I don’t think anyone would find this impossible, what with all the cover-ups of sex abuse, domestic abuse, fraud and corruption. That is the real issue. Whether or not she should have investigated and looked at police reports is irrelevant in my opinion. I don’t think Feldman thought that including this anecdote in the book would be as scandalous as it has become. I would have preferred if the she had made it clearer that the episode was rumor. But that is how I took it.

In my opinion, Unorthodox is a good book. Some are calling it a chillul Hashem. I find this ironic. Here is a woman who left the community. She tells her story. The story seems entirely plausible. But because she left it is chillul Hashem. Yet, when people who stay in the communirty commit crimes, acts of violence, are unseemly for other reasons, that is not a chillul Hashem. Quite the double standard if you ask me. All communities have what I call “abhorrent beliefs”. Is it a chillul Hashem when our abhorrent beliefs or practices are exposed truthfully? That’s a hard question to answer.  More important is the challenge of dealing with them in a modern world. This will be addressed in a future post. Maybe even tomorrow.

Should you read Unorthodox? It’s interesting enough. Deborah’s story is unique enough to hold your interest. The inside information about the insular communities of Williamsburg and beyond is worth your time. If you are looking for high drama and massive scandals look elsewhere. It’s “good reading”. Not “can’t miss reading”.

Recommended for adults only.

Click here to purchase from Amazon: Unorthodox